“The war of complexional distinction is upon us, it is more ravaging to us as a people than that of Mars. But men, as long as this flag shall wave over you, you may rest assured that no man, or set of men, or nations, can successfully grind you down under the iron heel of oppression.” – Committee of Coloured Women (wives of the men of the all-Black Victoria Pioneer Rifles), Vancouver, British Columbia, 1864.
2014 is a particularly significant year for marking Remembrance Day. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the First World War and the 75th anniversary of the Second World War. This blog post to encourage teachers to be intentional in including the stories and experiences of African Canadian men and women in both conflicts as they begin to plan in-class activities and school assemblies.
Black men have a long history of fighting in defence of the British colony of British North America (now Canada) and later, the Dominion of Canada, even in the absence of full citizenship rights and discrimination throughout society. At the turn of the 20th century, African Canadians faced discrimination in housing, employment, and education. In 1911, the government of Canada placed a 1-year ban on the immigration of African Americans into the Prairie Provinces.
Despite facing racism in society and by the government, hundreds of Black men sought to volunteer their service to defend the colony and country. Sadly however, discrimination extended to military service.
When men wishing to enlist attended recruiting centres, they were turned away, a common unwritten practice. Hamilton’s first Black postal carrier, George Morton Jr., wrote a letter to Sir Sam Hughes, Minister of Militia and Defence in September of 1915 asking “to be informed if your Department has any absolute rule, regulations, or restrictions which prohibits, disallows or discriminates against the enlistment and enrolment of colored men of good character and physical fitness as soldiers” because “a number of colored men in this city (Hamilton), who have offered enlistment and service, have been turned down and refused, solely on the ground of color or complexioned distinction…” (Letter available under Resources).
To meet recruiting demands while addressing the protests of the African Canadian community, the Canadian Militia Department established the Construction Battalion #2, a segregated military unit in which Black men could serve. Raised in Nova Scotia, more than 300 Black men from across Canada enlisted in the Construction Battalion #2, risking their lives to fight and work for a common cause, but separated by race.
In the Second World War, Black men once again answered the call of the Canadian military, this time serving in integrated units. Hundreds of African Canadian men deployed to Europe. Some fought on the front lines while others performed equally essential duties in labor units building trenches, roads, and bridges. Hundreds of African Canadian men including Stanley Grizzle and Owen Rowe served as soldiers. The Honourable Lincoln Alexander, Leonard Braithwaite, and Alvin Duncan of Oakville were some of the Black men who served in the Royal Canadian Air Force.
African Canadian soldiers hoped that their military service, along with the war efforts of the Black community back home, would translate into furthering human rights for African Canadians. Many were blatantly reminded that nothing had changed. In 1943, Hugh Burnett, was refused a cup of coffee at a Windsor restaurant while wearing his military uniform.
Another group of Canadians of colour whose military service should be taught are Sikh Canadians. Sikh men served in the Canadian military in both world wars. Buckam Singh, who immigrated to Canada from Punjab, India as a young boy, served in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces and received a Victory Medal. Nine other Sikh Canadians fought in WWI at a time when Sikhs were barred allowed from immigrating to Canada (see 1914 Kamagata Maru incident). Only Sikh Canadians who served in the Second World War were granted voting rights in 1947.
Sources for teaching about the role of Sikh Canadians include:
The military contributions of Aboriginals should also be recognized in our schools. Nearly 10, 000 Aboriginal men and women enlisted and served in the first and second world wars. They served as soldiers, sailors, and nurses. Similar to African Canadians and Sikh Canadian, Aboriginal people faced service restrictions because of their race. Positions of commissioned officers were off limits to non-Whites. Aboriginal peoples volunteered to fight overseas at a time when their communities remained under the grip of the oppressive policy of forced assimilation, with Aboriginal children were being taken from their families and placed in residential schools. The cultures and languages Aboriginal peoples were under perpetual assault and Aboriginal communities were stepping up their fight for the federal government. Their service in the Canadian military is another example of marginalized Canadians battling for equality and human rights on many fronts.
In spite of and because of the social injustices they experienced, the willingness and resolve of African Canadians, Sikh Canadians, Aboriginals and other groups to serve in the military should be woven firmly into the national Remembrance Day narrative.
Infusing these rich stories and varied perspectives challenge the racialized distinction and exclusion still prevalent in national memorials. Incorporating the experiences of these groups in our military helps students to develop a deeper, critical understanding of the racialization of military service and representation in commemorations, what happened in the past and how many of these barriers have been broken down. That means teaching about Black men being turned away from recruiting stations when they presented themselves to enlist and being rejected as volunteers; how their service was restricted because of their race, and how for some, the service of Black men was and has been deemed less valuable even though they fought and died alongside soldiers of European descent; what their lives were like after returning from Europe and how very little changed on the racial discrimination front; that Black mothers such as Edith Holloway, publically mourned their sons who died in combat.
Schools play an integral role in shaping public memory. Memory has a strong impact on how an individual sees and locates themselves and others in public spaces and reflected in the national heritage. Practices of remembrance such as Remembrance Day that includes the narratives of people of African descent help to reduce the displacement experienced, especially by Black students. The integration of African Canadian military experiences into the curriculum also teaches students that Canada was built and defended by Canadians of all backgrounds. Additionally, such an inclusion demonstrates that the contributions of African Canadian to the war efforts, who fought on two battlefields – the war theatre in Europe and the anti-Black racism in Canadian society – have benefitted many people.
There are direct Social Studies and History connections in grade 2, grade 6, and grade 8. There are also Canadian and World Studies links in grade 10 and grade 12 history, as well as to the new Social Sciences and Humanities courses on Equity Studies. Of course, there are also cross-curricular links to Language, the arts, and other subjects. A wide array of resources, like George Morton’s letter to the federal government, are available to teach about the experiences and narratives of Black Canadians who served in both world wars.
Some resources include:
These resources can assist teachers in utilizing varied primary and secondary sources to present a cohesive, comprehensive and historically accurate picture of the war eras and to teach students to analyze the historical impact of war on the Canadian homefront as it relates to Black Canadians.
Be inclusive of the African Canadian perspective in Remembrance Day commemorations and acknowledge African Canadians’ struggle for equality in military service and in Canadian society. Black men have an extensive history of fighting in defence of Canada as a British colony and a country going back to the 17th century and Black women have always supported the war effort at home and abroad. It is only right that we never forget that.
(Images courtesy of Black Canadian Veterans of War)